Intelligent design. Offshore oil drilling. Global climate change. Every day, consumers, parents, patients, and voters are faced with real and important decisions about scientific issues. Yet, many people lack the training necessary to properly evaluate scientific data. As a scientist interested in the interface between evolution and climate change, I am acutely aware both of the widespread public misinformation about science and of the critical role that public support plays in effective conservation measures. These issues ignited my initial interest in teaching. While research is useful to fellow academics, teaching and outreach give me the opportunity to clarify misconceptions, explain the scientific method, and inspire students to have an interest in and appreciation for science, regardless of their eventual career paths. I achieve these goals by: 1) actively engaging students in the scientific process, 2) creating an environment that fosters inquiry, 3) approaching my teaching with scientific rigor, and 4) reaching out to the K-12 community and to the public. In doing so, I provide all my students with the critical thinking skills and knowledge they need to be informed citizens, patients, and consumers in this changing world.
Student Engagement: In science, the goal of investigators is to ask, and then answer, novel questions. However, classroom techniques that focus exclusively on lecturing without the opportunity for inquiry can leave students with the impression that modern science is static, and not the dynamic field that attracted most practicing scientists. Therefore, I improve students‟ scientific literacy and inspire an enthusiasm for science classes by engaging students in the scientific method using several approaches. In all my classes, I introduce important experiments from the primary literature. After explaining the
experimental design, I ask students to make predictions about the outcome they expect based on information presented earlier in the course. This helps reinforce the material by placing it in a real world context, and it forces students to think more deeply about the issues rather than simply memorizing information. I also incorporate case studies that are relevant to current scientific problems. For example, the topic of Pleistocene re-wilding (the idea of replacing extinct North American megafauna with related African species) has generated controversy in ecology and conservation biology. I have assigned selected journal articles on both sides of this issue to my classes at the introductory and upper division levels. I carefully choose articles that are clearly written and present straightforward ideas, providing an excellent introduction to the primary literature for novice students. At the same time, the idea of introducing elephants to the Great Plains provides ample grounds for discussion. This exercise engages students in real conservation issues while simultaneously providing them with tangible examples of keystone species and ecosystem services, reinforcing critical ecological concepts. Finally, I relate concepts in class to issues that are interesting and familiar to students. This serves two goals. First,
students learn more when ideas are presented in the context of knowledge they have already mastered (1). Second, presenting ideas in a real-world context shows students more directly why this knowledge is important. For example, in a lesson on building phylogenies, I use examples from forensics and epidemiology to show how phylogenetics helps solve crimes and predict disease outbreaks. I have found that relating course content to contemporary issues greatly increases my students‟ interest in the material
(see „Student Evaluations‟) and helps students see career possibilities in science other than health care.
Fostering Inquiry: In higher education, it is not enough to simply engage students in the material: my primary goal is to teach students to think critically about what they are learning and to approach new ideas with a sense of inquiry. This is a skill that benefits all students, whether or not they choose to continue in their study of biology.
In the classroom, I use three main approaches to foster critical thinking. First, I incorporate all levels of Bloom‟s taxonomy, even in lower division classes. Using the higher levels of Bloom‟s taxonomy to inform my course goals and learning objectives ensures that students analyze and synthesize information rather than simply memorizing terms and definitions that will be forgotten soon after the exam (see „Sample Handout‟). Second, I take the philosophy “cover less, uncover more” (2) in structuring my classes. Biology is such an expansive discipline that it can be tempting for an instructor (particularly in introductory classes) to cover as much content as possible to expose students to the breadth of the discipline, leaving depth to be developed in more advanced courses. This approach, however, can lead to only superficial learning. Instead, I select a few specific topics in each class to explore in detail using problem sets, case studies, and selected readings from the literature to reinforce information and teach higher level thinking skills. For example, the role of resource availability in shaping populations, communities, and ecosystems is one theme we explore in my ecology course. Finally, I encourage
questions continually throughout class. Because fear can inhibit questioning, I establish ground rules for discussions from the first day of class and I have students discuss problems in small groups before any class-wide discussion. This strategy increases the number of questions that I get from students and helps me better identify issues that students are struggling with before I move on to new ideas.
Developing the ability to think critically about science is equally important for students doing independent research. Independent research is another route of learning science and an excellent way for students to get extensive hands on experience using the scientific method. Typically, I have students I mentor begin a project by working very closely with me. I encourage students to develop their own projects by concurrently sharing the history of my own research (including the experiments that did not work) and using lab meetings to read primary literature and to critique each other‟s work in a helpful way. As students learn techniques, I encourage them to think deeply about the work, rather than simply
focusing on the task at hand. What do they find most interesting? What are alternative hypotheses that might explain results? What types of questions would be logical next steps? As students begin to plan more independent projects, I help them develop their ideas through guided literature searches, writing exercises, and mini-lab meetings with other undergraduates in the lab. I have had great success mentoring students: I have worked with ten undergraduates, and although all started off with an interest in medical school, three are currently in graduate school in the field of evolution and one is a manager in an evolutionary biology lab. I have also coauthored a peer reviewed paper with one of my students (3).
Teaching Development, Future Directions, and Scholarship: I strongly believe that scientists should approach teaching with the same evidence-based methodology and critical evaluation that they apply to research. Therefore, just as I encourage my students to think critically about their work, I dedicate time to thoughtful evaluation and critique of my teaching methods. Throughout the semester, I routinely spend some time after each class reviewing how the class went. I annotate my lecture notes with comments on the examples that worked particularly well, or places where the students got lost, so I can
revise my lesson plan and try things differently the next time. I also periodically solicit student feedback on specific teaching strategies to determine how students perceive the effectiveness of my teaching methods, and I use that feedback to incorporate changes in my teaching. Finally, I believe it is important to use evidence based methods in teaching. To do so, I collect data on my own students that I use to determine the effectiveness of certain teaching methods, and I plan to establish a research program in teaching and learning. I also stay up to date in the field by reading pedagogical literature and regularly
attending teaching workshops and seminars. This approach has resulted in continual improvements to my teaching, as evidenced both by my student evaluations and by my student performance.
Community Outreach: While classroom teaching is important, community outreach is a critical way of inspiring people to consider a career in science and can contribute to a positive image of science for the 73% of American adults that do not hold a 4 year degree (4). Toward this end, I have been very active in education and outreach efforts. I have worked with K-12 students as a math and science tutor with the Blue Ribbon Advocate Program, given presentations on the importance of evolution to fisheries management at a NC high school science exposition, and designed a module on wildlife forensics that I
gave at a local high school as a DNA day ambassador. As an active member of the NC Herpetological Society, I frequently give demonstrations and run booths on local environmental issues at community events like the Eno River Festival. I find these events particularly rewarding because I can reach people whose decisions make a difference for their community, whether it is showing landowners how to create more wildlife friendly habitat, or convincing people that the snakes in their backyard are important
components of the ecosystem. At these events, I have had many conversations with people who have lived in NC for their entire lives knowing nothing about the animals that live in their neighborhood. An appreciation for nature is critical if we are to convince the public to support conservation measures, and I am passionate about inspiring that appreciation in others. I am passionate about teaching and am looking forward to developing classes that will both meet the needs of my students and that hopefully will inspire them to continue their interest in science.
1. Willingham, D. T. 2010. Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientists answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
2. Case, J. and Gunstone, R. 2002. Metacognitive development as a shift in approach to learning: an in-depth case study. Studies in higher Education 27: 459-470.
3. Pfennig, K. S., Chunco, A. J., and Reynolds, A. C. 2007. Ecological selection and hybrid fitness: hybrids successes on parental resrouces. Evol. Ecol. Res. 9: 341-354.
4. Stoops, N. Educational attainment in the United States: 2003. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. U.S. Census Bureau.